Helene Zaslove spent Friday afternoon like most Southern Californians--stuck in traffic.
Having heard that patrons who arrived late at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the opera "Tristan und Isolde," would not be seated during the first act, Zaslove feared the worst as she crept on her way to downtown Los Angeles from Santa Monica.
Even after she arrived at the Music Center's garage and raced on foot for the front door, she said, Music Center employees encouraged her: "Hurry, hurry, you can still make it!"
She didn't. Breathing heavily, the 50ish language teacher and social worker arrived at the Pavilion entrance only to be told she was indeed too late. Zaslove had spent $90 on her two tickets and was far from happy.
"This is a Hanukkah gift for my daughter," she said. "We both worked today and didn't even eat dinner. Whoever planned this at 6 p.m. on a Friday night and on the weekend before Christmas--should have their head examined. This was supposed to be a relaxing evening, but instead there is so much tension."
Zaslove and her daughter were among the estimated 175 opera-goers who missed the first act of Richard Wagner's opera Friday. Also cooling their heels: movie actor Dennis Hopper and noted cellist Lynn Harrell. Upon arriving, the latecomers were directed upstairs to the Grand Hall and invited to watch Act I on two 30-inch television monitors. They would not be seated until Act II, which was scheduled to begin about 100 minutes later.
The no-late-seating policy is not unusual. It is enforced by major opera companies everywhere. The early starting time for "Tristan," however, created special problems.
Because the opera, with intermissions, lasts nearly five hours, the Pavilion's management was intent on having the performance begin promptly. (The prelude began at approximately 6:10 p.m.) According to Music Center spokesman John Howlett, notices were sent to patrons--at least to those who could be tracked down--reminding them to be on time.
Slightly more than 3,000 patrons did arrive in time for Act I. Some like John and Cindy Dittes of North Hollywood gave themselves two hours to get downtown; others like the Georges family of south Orange County gave themselves three hours.
Moments before the doors were shut, however, the footsteps of many well-dressed patrons noticeably quickened. Much like barkers at a carnival, several theater employees stood outside the Center, shouting into the darkness, "This is the final call. There will be no late seating."
For the most part, latecomers admitted they had been warned to be on time. Nevertheless, many were not pleased with the turn of events. Huffing and puffing, some aired their exasperation and frustration openly. Others took the experience in stride.
Bernice Colman of Venice said she didn't receive notification to be on time, although she said she purchased her tickets as part of a subscription series and that the Music Center had her address.
"To keep people out for an hour and a half and not let them in at a reasonable break is outrageous," said Colman, an instructor from Cal State Northridge. "I struggled through traffic. There were accidents on the freeway. Not to take that into consideration . . . makes me crazy. There's a kind of presumption about it. The presumption is that people have nothing else to do except come to the opera--that there are never any extenuating circumstances."
Peggy Pages and Max Garten of Palos Verdes were so upset by the attitudes and policies of the Music Center's management that the couple considered circulating a petition to voice their strong displeasure. "But we didn't have a big enough paper," Pages said.
Brad Brown and Stacey Robertson of Whittier, first-time opera-goers who purchased their tickets through TicketMasters, were not aware of the stringent curtain. "We started late and were here by six, but we had trouble finding parking," Brown said. "Their policy is understandable, but it's a little unreasonable being that it's a working night."
Added Robertson: "There should have been something written on the tickets warning us."
At the Dec. 9 performance, when about 400 people were locked out of Act I, refunds were given to latecomers, Howlett said. "MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) had a special event that night, so traffic was especially bad, and there were no (closed circuit TV) screens up then," he said.
But no refunds or adjustments were made Friday night.
"I didn't pay $280 (for four tickets) to watch the opera on TV," said first-time opera-goer Harvey Warren of Los Angeles. "We were having a stroke--a heart attack--in traffic trying to get here. In Los Angeles, where they desperately need support of the arts, to treat people like this. . . . Why would I come again? That's my night at the opera--like the Marx Brothers' movie. I'm waiting for Groucho to come sliding down the banister."